He may not be a thug, hustler, or what one might label an emcee, but Nelly has somehow ensnared the rap world and beyond with his country charm. His 2000 street anthem “Country Grammar,” recognized as the playful rhyming tune (“Down, Down Baby”) the ‘hood used to chant back in the days, instantly connected to the hip-hop audience. And the sing-songy hook was catchy enough to capture the interest of the MTV crowd.
Ever since, the St. Louis native’s dialectic flow has earned him platinum-selling status and a universal appeal that has eluded even the sharpest lyricists. But that hasn’t halted claims of misogyny and steady attacks aimed at his commercial reputation. That aside, Nelly’s latest albums Sweat and Suit, released simultaneously, made him the first solo artist to debut at number one and two on the Billboard Charts, and his singles have remained atop the charts since he surfaced on the music scene.
Nelly spoke candidly with AllHipHop.com one evening to discuss his commerciality, talk basketball, and settle rumors of a romantic link between him and R&B singer Ashanti.
AllHipHop.com: How would you rate yourself as a singer?
Nelly: I don’t know, I wouldn’t. I’d probably do okay for a rapper, but if I was to call myself a singer, I think people would tear me apart.
AllHipHop.com: What about the comparisons to Ja Rule, who got some backlash for his rapping/singing. What’s your reaction to that criticism?
Nelly: People are always gonna compare, but I mean, that’s not for me to say. That’s not really for me to say or nothing like that. I enjoy duke music too, so it’s nothing like that, but this is something I’ve been doing since my first album.
AllHipHop.com: Some people say you’re not really a lyricist like for example, Nas or Jay Z. I think lyricist is a different definition than rapper.
Nelly: Well, yeah. I think it is.
AllHipHop.com: Do you consider yourself a lyricist?
Nelly: I mean…as far as like with Nas and Jay-Z and different people, I think, different people for different reasons. I think I have did certain songs where I probably…you know, I probably did a few songs on each of my albums where people really didn’t listen.
AllHipHop.com: Which songs do you think?
Nelly: I think “On the Grind,” I don’t think people listened, off the Nellyville album. I thought “Greed, Hate, Envy” was pretty good off the Country Grammar album. “Tho Dem Wrappas” off the Country Grammar album, I thought was pretty hot. I think on this album, I think [pauses] “River Don’t Runnn.” I also think off of this album, off the Sweat album, I think “Na-NaNa-Na” was hot to me.
AllHipHop.com: Some people tend to see you as a commercial rapper, a pop artist. I’m wondering if you see yourself that way too.
Nelly: Nah, I don’t see that as far as like, when you say commercial in the aspect of…I mean, I’ve been able to appeal, but who hasn’t? Is 50 [Cent] a commercial rapper? He sold 6 million albums, you know. Jay-Z sold 5 million albums on an album before. And once you get to a certain [point], you are pop music. It’s funny because a lot of rappers say that, until they achieve that type of success, and then you see a slight change in them. At least mine been the same since day one.
AllHipHop.com: Do you write all your own lyrics?
Nelly: Yeaah, I hope so.
AllHipHop.com: Would you ever consider changing your style, for example a lot of rappers are doing the political thing now.
Nelly: Well, I mean, again, it’s about me evolving and stuff like that, so I don’t know what might happen. I grew up on gangsta rap. First record I bought was Eazy-E. I grew up on “Dopeman, Dopeman” and N***az4life and all that, so that was what I was on. I didn’t get to this ‘til after I started seeing music as really a way out of where the hell I was in, as a new hustle for me basically. Because I was like, ‘hey, well wait a minute, y’all gon’ pay me what for this?’ I feel if I could sell drugs, I ain’t got no problem with selling music, you can’t be serious.
AllHipHop.com: You said in a recent interview that there are rappers that stay on top of the beat and those that stay behind the beat, but you want to be inside the beat. What did you mean by that?
Nelly: Well, just that. You might have heard a lot of rappers on the beat and it sound like they kinda fighting the beat. It’s like ‘oh, no. You shouldn’t be on that beat’ [laughs]. And then you have some people it’s like, oh yeah, like you got busy. And you know, the ones who I think, I think Jay-Z is one good for finding a way inside the beat. I think Missy is another one that’s good for finding her way inside the beat. I think Fabolous is another, for finding his way to get inside the beat. Ja [Rule] is the same, you know. You gotta find your way inside that beat, though. Some people just hear a hot beat, yet still they say the same rap the same way as they would say on any other beat. That’s not it, you hear that and you’re like ughh [laughs].
AllHipHop.com: I heard you’re going to be hosting an episode of "MAD TV" at the end of this month.
Nelly: Well, not really hosting "MAD TV," but I’m promoting it.
AllHipHop.com: So you’re performing on it?
Nelly: Yeah, I performed on it.
AllHipHop.com: Do you see yourself getting into acting heavily?
Nelly: If the fans allow me to. To be honest. They might not want to see me like that, or they might not feel me. So if they allow me to, then so be it. If they don’t, then I mean, I’m content, sweetheart. I can’t really complain about everything I’ve been able to achieve and everything I’ve gotten.
AllHipHop.com: When you were on the set of [Ashanti’s upcoming film] “Coach Carter,” did you pick up any acting tips from the cast?
Nelly: “Coach Carter?” What you mean on the set of “Coach Carter”?
AllHipHop.com: To visit Ashanti.
Nelly: Oh, [laughing] what you mean?
AllHipHop.com: Well, I read that you went to visit her on the set a lot. Her co-star Samuel L. Jackson said something about it.
Nelly: Nah, I didn’t visit her a lot.
AllHipHop.com: But did you visit?
Nelly: Yeah, I mean, I stopped by and said hi before, but it wasn’t like that. I didn’t really see the set or nothing like that.
AllHipHop.com: I read in the newspaper that you said you guys were dating.
Nelly: Nah, we just cool, you know, she has a lot going on. I have a lot going on.
AllHipHop.com: But you have dated before.
Nelly: Oh, yeah. We’ve been out before, of course. I mean, people seen us, so we’re not gon’ lie [and say] we haven’t been out and then [people say] ‘well, here’s the picture.’ [Laughs] No, it’s not like that, but again, she’s single and I’m single.
AllHipHop.com: Did you hear what Samuel L. Jackson said about you being on the set? He said, "Let’s just say I ate more craft service because Nelly wasn’t bringing food to me everyday."
Nelly: [laughing] I don’t know where he’s getting’ that from. I gotta talk to Sam, what is he….? [Laughing]
AllHipHop.com: What’s your reaction to his comment?
Nelly: I don’t know, I don’t what that means. I don’t really know what that means.
AllHipHop.com: Can you talk about the “Tip Drill” video [aired on BET Uncut] and how you reacted when you found out those Spelman [College] students would protest your appearance for the bone marrow drive.
Nelly: Well, first of all, the “Tip Drill” video was made for adults, to come on an adult program.
Nelly: It had all adults in it, so it was not supposed to be seen by, I guess, children and all that. I mean [pauses] it just made it kind of hard, for the simple fact that it was like…I took it personal, you know, with the Spelman thing, because I’m trying to save a life and you’re [protestors] talking about a video. It doesn’t even compare. And do I agree with what you’re saying? Yeah, I do agree with what you’re saying as far as, we need to uplift, definitely, our women in our culture a little more than what we’ve been able to do as black man. But I also agree that there’s other ways to go about it and that we need to really take a good look at what we’re saying because these are grown women that are deciding to do what it is they do. It’s not like we’re going up in Spelman, soliciting girls that are trying to be doctors and lawyers to get in a video and take their clothes off or anything like that.
AllHipHop.com: Makes sense. I want to talk about basketball. Everybody seems to forget that you’re part owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. What are your duties as part owner?
Nelly: [laughing] I mean, as of right now, you’re part owner, you’re part owner. There’s not too many part owners who really do anything, because that’s what your president’s for, your GM [general manager], your coaching staff and all that. I don’t think [Dallas Mavericks owner] Mark Cuban pretty much does anything [laughs]. He probably inquires and stuff like that as far as what he feels…well, he’s a little bit more hands on, he’s a little bit more majority of owner, so it’s a difference. But participating in the board meetings and stuff like that, being on the board and, you know, inputting advice and giving your comments on what it is that you would prefer to see. But right now, I’m in learning mode, sweetheart. I’m in learning mode. I’m here, and I’m learning right now. I’m learning from a great guy by the name of [BET founder] Bob Johnson, one of the very few black billionaires who we have. So for me to be in business with the brother is like, whoa. I’m very appreciative.
AllHipHop.com: Did you see the Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers brawl a few weeks ago? [Players got involved in a huge altercation with fans resulting in several player suspensions and charges against players and fans.]
Nelly: Actually, I was overseas when that happened, but I did get a chance to see it on Sportscenter and stuff like that. I didn’t see it when it happened though.
AllHipHop.com: Some critics were blaming hip-hop for the brawl, saying that it was thug mentality on display.
Nelly: Wow, I thought that came from 400 years ago. [Laughs] But, you know, it’s funny because had it not been promoted as much as it had been on TV and through the media, it really wouldn’t be the issue that it is right now, you know. And what do you blame the outburst for the [other] guy?
AllHipHop.com: How’s Murphy Lee doing since he was arrested for DUI back on Halloween?
Nelly: Ah that’s some bulls**t, you know [laughs]. He chill, you know, he chill, come on. It’s just one of them stops…police, young cat…It’s just some bull, so it ain’t affect little dirty. It ain’t nothing that he ain’t never been through before. It ain’t nothing neither one of us have never been through before, so I think it’s just a case that everybody, again, hits the media then there it is. It’s always gonna seem more than what it was, but then, I’m not gon’ say that ‘cause he was arrested. What more does it get than arrested? But it’s kind of a hard thing to say coming from where we come from. Do he probably wish he never did it? Of course. Of course, of course, but you know…
AllHipHop.com: Yeah, can you talk about what you and the St. Lunatics are working on right now?
Nelly: We got a group by the name of Tailor Made. We also have other rappers, King Jacob and Prentiss Cchurch, a female by the name of Chocolate Thai and we have a singer by the name of Avery Storm, who you might have heard on the Suit album with me and Mase [“In My Life”]. And we just trying to, you know, we wanna be a label, as opposed to one strict label, as opposed to just being a hip-hop label, even though a lot of our acts are hip-hop acts. But we want to me more than just that. We wanna be a complete label, because I just love music man, I love music. It just happens hip-hop is just in me because hell, that’s how I grew up, so that’s what I love. I love music—my father and all that, Al Green, and Earth, Wind and Fire, Commodores and everything—so I been listening to that. That s**t is like drug in me. I can here that s**t playing when I’m sleep.